Yes I know it’s a bird, but the definition of “national animal” is a bit woolly. Would you count a mythical one, for example? Looking at you and your unicorn, Scotland.
Also, several countries have multiple or none depending on which forum or Wikipedia link you land on. I finally found what will have to do as an “official” list, and it was scraped together by Hammerschlag and Gallagher from verified documents and Minahan’s Complete Guide to National Symbols and Emblems.
But even this might not be 100%; the barn swallow is the national animal of two countries, Estonia and Austria, but for some reason I couldn’t find anything about this in the one with loads of eagle symbols everywhere.
Estonia, on the other hand, has exactly the kind of national animal story I was hoping for!
In case your geography’s as bad as mine, Estonia is a northern European country on the Baltic Sea. It sits opposite Finland and Sweden, is bordered by Russia and Latvia, and is lush with rivers and mixed forests.
It was part of the USSR from 1940 until 1991, and each day its flag is proudly flown in the capital Tallinn. This will become relevant later.
Up until the 19th century, farming was your go-to for polite conversation with neighbours, so the barn, often where you and your family lived and worked, was an important cultural symbol. And what comes with barns? Nesting swallows, of course!
A fairweather friend
The barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) is a blue-black and white bird with a red face and chin, and a forked tail ending in what’s adorably called “streamers”.
Hailing from Africa, it has the largest range of all swallows, and like its bird buddy the swift, spends most of its life on the wing. It tends to fly lower than its cohorts, and in Estonian culture, if it flies too close to the ground it means rain is on the way.
Since it sensibly spends winter in the south and summer in the north, it’s found almost everywhere except Antarctica, although two of its six subspecies don’t migrate. Those that do, and specifically those who head to northern Europe in summer, make a staggering 10,000 km (6,213 mile) trip from southern Africa, going roughly 150 km (93 miles) per day, and back again!
No doubt it’s an awesome little flitter, but why was it chosen as a national animal?
How did they swallow that?
From 1940 onwards Estonia was under Soviet rule, and its flag, national anthem and coat of arms were banned. According to Chalvin, even wearing the colours of the flag got you a sideways look from the KGB. Fortunately, twenty years later, a little bird told the Estonians how to get around this.
In the 1960s the International Council for Bird Preservation, now known as BirdLife International, nudged the world to nominate national birds to raise conservation awareness. The barn swallow was by no means endangered, but as well as being linked to the country’s farming heritage, it matched two of the three colours on the flag.
The vote was unanimous, and Estonia put forward the barn swallow to silently cheer for its identity.
According to the Estonian Institute, the USSR let this slide because a) in the constitution, Estonia SSR was still a sovereign nation and therefore allowed to choose a national bird, and b) the barn swallow was an important cultural symbol and linked to class struggle. For instance, in one folktale, it was created from a serf girl.
The version I found didn’t mention her class, but that was the least of it to be honest.
In Kirby’s collection of Estonian stories, a woman’s husband beats her senseless and kills her child, after which the Old God Ukko takes pity on her and turns her into a swallow. I can’t say it’s the solution I’d have picked if I were an all-powerful god, especially since darling hubby also slices her with an axe afterwards, hence the forked tail.
Because of who she once was, the swallow makes her nest close to human houses and is not as afraid of them as other birds. In a somewhat happier story, it’s everything else that was created by the swallow!
In Antanaitis’ paper on ancient Baltic peoples, one variation of an Estonian runosong sees a swallow lay one egg that becomes the netherworld, another that becomes the upperworld, and one that becomes the Moon. Impressive for such an unassuming bird!
Maybe that’s why it didn’t experience the same clampdown that the cornflower did, which was adopted in 1967-8 as the national flower and final colour of the banned flag. Regardless, neither symbol was formally recognised until 1988 during the Singing Revolution.
Today you’ll find barn swallows in various Estonian logos, in the shape of their naval flag, and even on Wikipedia, where the best articles about Estonia can receive the “Award of the Soaring Swallow”.
So picking this little bird as its symbol helped Estonia regain some of its identity. But that’s not the only one.
Remember when I said the whole “national animal” thing is a bit woolly? In 2018 Estonia decided that it also wanted a national animal “animal”, and voted for the wolf.
Awesome choice, but that will have to wait for another day.
Barn Swallow Fact File
Latin: Hirundo rustica
What? Gorgeous little black and white bird with a red throat and forked tail.
First recorded? In 1758 in Systema Naturae by Carolus Linnaeus, who literally wrote the book – that book – on zoology!
Where? All continents except Antarctica. Apart from two of its subspecies, it migrates thousands of kilometres south in winter and then back again.
How big? 17-19 cm / 6.6-7.4 inches long, with a wingspan of 32-35 cm / 12.5-13.7 inches.
Diet? Insects, eaten on the wing.
Social behaviour? Barn swallows form a breeding pair and nest in colonies, but they can also stray, defend a small territory around their nest, and sing individual songs as well as in a chorus. So not as black and white as they appear (sorry).
Endangered? Due to its massive range and stable population it’s considered Least Concern by the IUCN, although changes in farming practices and competition from other birds can spoil the party somewhat.
They look cute. Do they need my help at all?
Featured image credit: “Boerenzwaluw – Hirundo rustica” by Gertjan van Noord.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Antanaitis, Indre Rita. 1995. “A multi-varied approach to meaning of some East Baltic Neolithic symbols“. UNLV Retrospective Theses & Dissertations.
Aruja, Endel. No date. “Estonia“. Britannica.com.
BirdLife International. 2019. “Hirundo rustica. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species” 2019: e.T22712252A137668645
Chalvin, Antoine. 2002. “L’hirondelle et le bleuet“. Regard sur l’Est [French]
Dewey, Tanya, and Roth, Chava. No date. “Hirundo rustica, barn swallow“. Animal Diversity Web.
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “BirdLife International“. Britannica.com.
“Estonian flag: sky, earth and snow“. No date. Visit Estonia.
The Estonian Ornithological Society. 2012. “Barn swallow celebrates 50 years as national bird“. Looduskalender.ee.
GrrlScientist. 2011. “Mystery bird: Barn swallow, Hirundo rustica“. The Guardian.
Hammerschlag, Neil, and Gallagher, Austin J. 2017. “Extinction Risk and Conservation of the Earth’s National Animal Symbols“, BioScience 67(8):744–749.
Kalling, Ken. 2015. “Estonian national symbols“. Estonian Institute.
Kirby, W.F., et al. 1895. “The hero of Esthonia and other studies in the romantic literature of that country“. John C. Nimmo.
Minahan, James. 2009. “The complete guide to national symbols and emblems“. ABC-CLIO.
Mitchell, Carol. No date. “Tattoo Two“. Bird Stamp Society.
Müller-Wille, Staffan. No date. “Carolus Linnaeus“. Britannica.com.
Neubauer, Grzegorz, et al. 2012. “Leaving on migration: estimating departure dates of Barn Swallows Hirundo rustica from summer roosts using a capture–mark–recapture approach“, Bird Study 59(2): 144-154.
Newton, Ian. 2007. “The migration ecology of birds“. Academic Press.
Pancerasa, Mattia, et al. 2018. “Barn swallows long-distance migration occurs between significantly temperature-correlated areas“, Scientific Reports 8, article no: 12359 (2018).
“Swallow“. No date. RSPB.org.
Tambur, Silver. 2018. “Estonia picks the wolf as the national animal“. Estonian World.
Uurman, Katrin. 2018. “Estonia will have a new national animal“. Europea International.
Visit Estonia. 2020. “Life hacks from the nature“.
Wikipedia. No date. “Wikipedia: WikiProject Estonia/Award of the Soaring Swallow holders“.